Dylan’s Minnesota story shows poetry in motion

Bob Zimmerman leads his band the Golden Chords at a 1958 concert at the Hibbing Memorial Building Little Theater in his Iron Range hometown.

Bob Zimmerman leads his band the Golden Chords at a 1958 concert at the Hibbing Memorial Building Little Theater in his Iron Range hometown.

This is my Sunday column for the April 15, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. I read a shorter version of this piece on Northern Community Radio’s “Between You and Me” Saturday, April 14.

Dylan’s Minnesota story shows poetry in motion
By Aaron J. Brown

This 1978 quote from Bob Dylan opens the March 2012 cover story in Twin Cities Metro magazine:

“The earth [in Hibbing] is unusual, filled with ore. There is a magnetic attraction … maybe thousands and thousands of years ago some planet bumped into the land there. There is a great spiritual quality … that is where I grew up.”

For people in Hibbing, this means two important things. One, it refutes the persistent myth that Bob Dylan hates his hometown. Two, the date shows that Dylan’s affections for where he grew up were not born of later-in-life nostalgia. In ’78, Dylan was not yet 40 – squarely an adult but not terribly far removed from his youth. He was old enough to know what he meant; young enough to remember.

So let’s stop the self-defeating scorn, my fellow Iron Rangers. Let’s stop dismissing a guy because someone, somewhere heard he said he hated Hibbing, and therefore was some kind of traitor. I wouldn’t even bring this up if I weren’t hearing the same old tired talking points from people under the age of 20. They must hear it somewhere. So let’s just stop.

Again in the Twin Cities Metro Magazine story, Dylan is quoted from a 1978 interview saying “I feel Minnesota more than I feel New York or L.A. … My work reflects the thoughts I had as a little kid that have become super-developed.”

Truth is, Dylan left the Iron Range during a 50-year period in which most people left the Iron Range. They leave yet today, streaming south for Duluth, the Twin Cities and Texas; west to North Dakota and California. We see this on Facebook. We see this in our families. They go hungry or they go educated; usually both. They go for jobs. They go for excitement. Some go because they hate the Range and love to leave. Some leave because they love the Range and hate to watch it die. They go the same.

And yes, some of us stay, most by choice. I have stayed, first for family and increasingly as some sort of avant-garde literary experiment. But I have also learned the danger of living amid the temples of your youth, the constant inward gaze which fogs the reality of your situation. How easy it is to drive through Nashwauk, forgetting that the sprawling Hawkins pit is even there. How easy it is to drive through Hibbing along the Beltline and fail to see the decay. How important it is for us to realize these things and react.

Dylan has essentially said what poets have said for ages about life. A vibrant life needs action, and no early action is more resolute than leaving your hometown behind. In fact, it’s the easiest thing to do. Staying and changing your hometown is harder. I’m trying really hard to think of a successful example. Atticus Finch? Oh wait, he’s fictional. Also, he failed.

Fifty years. That is how long ago Bob Dylan released his first self-titled album. It was a motley collection of traditional and folk songs that got him noticed and paved the way for “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are a’ Changin’” and the roller coaster of the 1960s. The Metro story, penned by a cadre of writers, quotes a critic who says that the chubby-cheeked Dylan on that first album is sort of the missing link between the middle class misfit Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing and the iconic, mysterious Bob Dylan from The Universe.

Fifty years. That was the last time the population of the Iron Range grew. The Iron Range mystique, of back-slapping, taconite-shipping, snowmobile-riding, economically stagnant self-preservation – the whole works – was formed and cemented in this time. It is only because fifty years is most of a lifetime that people now think it’s always been this way.

You have to understand, we are all here on the Iron Range because, more or less, a planet really did bump into the land, that we are iron-tinted stardust on ground that has stood sacred since humans first measured time. That’s worth noting. That’s worth writing songs about. That’s worth building a community around. That’s worth some pride. Dylan did it in his way. What will we do?

A lot of people leave when confronted with this question. I think it’s worth considering alternatives, don’t you?

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on public stations like 91.7 KAXE.


  1. Planet Waves, Dylan’s homage to his homeland (it’s called The Midwest) is a fine tribute to growing up in Duluth. Many sincere story songs about intimate relationships from someone who seems to treasure those relationships and the honesty they require to exist. Though he is surely a very private person, his small circle of close friends must be very tight.

    As validation of this concept consider Bob Dylan’s Dream. A masterpiece from a young man wise beyond his years. The similarities between early Dylan and early Jackson Browne are eerie. Both it can be said were leaps and bounds beyond their years with songs like Masters of War, God On Our Side, Bob Dylan’s Dream for Bob and These Days, Daddy’s Tune and Fountain of Sorrow from Jackson.

  2. This is a great piece Aaron.

    “we are iron-tinted stardust on ground that has stood sacred since humans first measured time”



  3. Thanks, C.O.! Appreciate it.

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